A Literary Home on the Range

The Dobie Paisano Ranch, just 15 miles from downtown Austin, provides solitude and inspiration for Texas’ best writers

Sarah Bird, MA ’76, the celebrated novelist and Texas Monthly columnist, became a writer in part so that she’d never have a “typical” day. Indeed, for a few months this summer, her daily ritual was far from the hectic 21st-century norm. As the recipient of the Ralph A. Johnson Memorial Fellowship from UT and the Texas Institute of Letters, she spent her summer dodging cottonmouths and porcupines and swimming daily in the pristine waters of upper Barton Creek, on a ranch once owned by legendary Texas author J. Frank Dobie.

That’s not to say she didn’t find a pleasant rhythm. “My favorite days at Paisano all start on Dobie’s heavenly front porch, the ‘gallery,’ a long sweep of undulating limestone beneath a porch roof painted blue as the sky,” she writes, in an e-mail from the ranch. “I fill the hummingbird feeders, then watch the aerial battles as my four best customers dive bomb each other. There is dew on the fluffy buffalo grass that surrounds the house, and a brave wild turkey hen patrols the far perimeter. I drink pots of Earl Grey, read whatever I’m researching, and try to jot down the ideas that flit through my head.”

Sound too good to be true? There is one catch — it doesn’t last forever. In August, Bird left the ranch to make room for the next in a long line of accomplished Texas writers.

The property is named first for Dobie, who owned it from 1959 to 1964, and second for his favorite ranch denizens, the roadrunners, or paisanos as they are known regionally. Dobie also would have been familiar with other meanings of the Spanish name — “rustic” and “compatriot.” In Dobie’s day, both alternate translations were accurate. He used it as a rural retreat from his home on Waller Creek in Austin, and he also made it a gathering point for an emerging community of Texas artists and intellectuals.

Throughout his life as a prominent folklorist, Dobie worked to understand and celebrate the stories that made Texas special, in many ways crafting the identity of “Texan” for subsequent generations. He and his wife, Bertha McKee Dobie, also left their stamp on Austin in particular, playing frequent host to a circle of mid-century luminaries who would help define the city as an oasis of free thinking and laid-back living. Among Dobie’s closest friends were naturalist Ray Bedichek and historian Walter Prescott Webb. Their informal gatherings were known at the time as the “Salon of the West.”

One of their favorite gathering spots was an oddly shaped rock in the middle of Barton Creek, just upstream from the Paisano ranch. “They’d sit out on that rock in the middle of the creek, and that’s where they’d philosophize,” says Michael Adams, a UT English professor and director of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship since 2007. He adds: “They were drinking, probably.” The same three men are now immortalized in bronze at the entrance to Barton Springs Pool, sitting atop what the sculptor called “Philosopher’s Rock.” (The sculpture might have been inspired by the rock on Dobie’s ranch or a different rock in Barton Springs Pool—accounts vary.)

In the course of Sarah Bird’s residency, the rock also inspired fellowship. “I was fascinated to learn that Dobie himself did not write out here,” she says. “Instead, he used Paisano as a place to gather his good friends, like Webb and Bedichek, and talk the evening away out on the gallery. That, and also living for the first time in an ultra-cool place, inspired me to pick up Bertha’s beater and do far more hostessing than I’d ever do back in Austin.”

She points to a rotary hand-beater on the mantelpiece. It once belonged to Dobie’s wife, who might have contributed more to his academic and publishing success than critics realize. “I discovered in a yellowing clipping that six of Dobie’s books appeared after his death,” Bird says, “put together by his unlisted collaborator,” as the clipping would have it. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since I’m a woman and I’ve spent so much of my life burrowing around for the less-told tale, that I was powerfully taken by the spirit of Bertha McKee Dobie.”

The hardscrabble lives of tough frontier women became a fixation for Bird during her residency. She walked alone to the ruins of an old log cabin on the edge of the property, and was surprised by the feelings and images that overtook her. “I felt as if I were channeling the thoughts of the German settler’s bride as, a century and a half ago, she beheld the fragile, isolated structure that would be her entire world from then on,” she says.

Bird isn’t exaggerating. Audrey Slate, the now-retired longtime director of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, tells a story of a reclusive couple named Levi who settled on an adjoining property around the start of the 20th century. When old Mr. Levi died, Mrs. Levi walked four miles up the creek to a neighbor’s house. “This is the first time I’ve been off in 30 years,” she announced. A few days later, her house burned down, and her body was found in the creek, weighed down by stones. A hired man was implicated. Slate attributes the story to another old neighbor of Dobie’s, a rancher named Morgan.

It didn’t take long for these tales and images to well up into a new artistic project for Bird. “These stirrings from both a very near and from a very distant frontier past made me want to create a heroine as self-sufficient as the women who’d inspired them,” she says, “a heroine in the tradition of the great Texas stoics that Dobie chronicled. I hope the protagonist of the novel I’ve been working on out here will be worthy of them.”

Any property as old and storied as Dobie Paisano is bound to have its share of ghosts. The ranch house, however, up until this last year, might have had a few too many. “The house was falling apart,” says Adams.  “There was a structure behind the house, sort of like a garage. Several writers wrote there, and one photographer used it as a darkroom, but the University condemned it and tore it down. The house wasn’t in much better shape.”

With support from UT, Adams embarked on a major renovation. The ranch house was significantly expanded, with a modernized kitchen and bathroom and wheelchair access. The results are remarkable. What was once a spartan structure has blossomed into an almost luxurious home-away-from-home, large enough to accommodate a small family.

Even before the remodel, Adams knew that the ranch house was built around an original 19th-century log cabin. He was pleasantly surprised, however, to learn that the cabin’s log walls could be uncovered and used as décor. Now, as resident writers walk down the hallway, they can trail their hands along rough-hewn logs that date back more than a century, perhaps as far back as the Civil War. “When we got the architect involved,” Adams says, “it came out better than we’d ever dreamed. It started as a necessity, but we ended up making it more atmospheric.” Bird was the first resident to occupy the house after the renovation.

The new, improved ranch house might have fewer insects and better plumbing, but new residents still must expose themselves to certain hazards of the rustic life. Bird tells the story of her elderly dog sniffing out a porcupine — “fortunately, we were able to pluck all the quills out of his snout and avoid a predawn trip to the vet”— and there are countless stories of residents’ run-ins with snakes. Flooding, perhaps, has caused the most trouble. “As far as I know, only two fellows lost their cars,” Slate says. “But that was mostly a matter of bad luck — they thought they had parked their cars far enough up the road, but the creek simply rose too fast.”

The ranch’s isolation has also been known to test residents who aren’t accustomed to rural life. When Oscar Casares, a 2002 Paisano Fellow, told his family that he’d be living way out in the country for a few months, his brother-in-law suggested that he bring a gun. “I didn’t want to believe that staying at a writers’ retreat required a firearm,” Casares says, “so I blew off all their advice and showed up with just my laptop and a box of books I planned to read.” On his first night at the ranch, however, he began imagining a crazy person coming to his door late at night, finding him defenseless. He found an old axe and placed it at the foot of the bed — “where it stayed for like five minutes until I imagined the killer — because now he wasn’t just a crazy person anymore — sneaking into the room when I was asleep. That’s when I decided under the bed was the best option.” The axe stayed there for the rest of his residency.

At least Bird had her dogs to play guardian — or so she thought. After sundown on her first night at the ranch, a tremendous, booming roar erupted over the hills. Bird knew that it came from the caged lions at a nearby ranch-turned-zoo, but her canines weren’t so reassured. “Our dogs levitated off the porch,” Bird says, “then turned to us with one thought in their freaked-out doggie brains: ‘Get us the hell out of here! Now!’” Fortunately for Bird, she stayed on nonetheless.

Several former Dobie Paisano Fellows, like Bird, are household names. Sandra Cisneros, for instance, whose The House on Mango Street is now assigned reading at high schools across the country, spent time at the ranch in 1986. Stephen Harrigan, ’71, best-selling author of The Gates of the Alamo, wrote his first novel in the old garage that was later condemned and torn down. Christian Wiman, a 1995 resident, became editor of the prestigious Poetry magazine.

Jose Cisneros (no relation to Sandra), an artist from El Paso, stayed at the ranch in 1969, just two years after the fellowship was established and five years after Dobie’s death. At that time, visual artists were sometimes offered residencies at the ranch — these days, fellowships are extended solely to writers.  Just two years before his death, Cisneros returned to Austin for a celebration of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship’s 40th anniversary. Administrators learned that he had since won a National Medal of the Arts and been knighted by the king of Spain. When he spoke, he moved the audience to tears, despite his broken English. He told the assembled friends of the Dobie Paisano that the fellowship had given him freedom, Adams says. “For the first time in his life he could paint what he wanted to paint, and not just school buses or whatever he needed to do to make money. And that was the turning point in his career.”

“I drink pots of Earl Grey, read whatever I’m researching, and try to jot down the ideas that flit through my head.”—Sarah Bird, 2010 Fellow

Similar themes have sounded through other residents’ assessments of their time spent at the ranch. “All of them use words like magical, transformative,” Adams says. “Part of that comes from the isolation and the serenity, but a lot of it just comes from being in a compact with nature. There’s a kind of nurture that takes place, with the creek and the trees and the breeze at night and the birds and all of that.”

Bird agrees, happily listing the critters she spent time with over the course of her unusual summer — from frogs and lizards and skunks to a magnificent flock of great blue herons. “My favorite, though,” she says, “are the roadrunners, the paisanos, that Dobie named his ranch after. As a New Mexico girl, I consider them good luck.”

She just may be right. It’s a charmed life, after all, on the ranch. And if the success of previous residents is any measure, Bird can expect even more good luck in the future.

photos by Sarah Wilson


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